Isabella Tree is an award-winning nature and travel author, and conservation pioneer. Her bestselling adult book, Wilding - the return of nature to a British farm, (200,000 copies sold) tells the story of Knepp, the groundbreaking rewilding project in West Sussex that she started with her husband, the environmentalist Charlie Burrell.
Allira Tee is an illustrator based in Melbourne, Australia. She has worked on a variety of commissions with clients from around the world, including Hygge and West, HarperCollins, Eeboo, L'Affiche Moderne, AHD Paper Co and Impression Originale. Her illustrations are created by hand using ink or graphite and finished with coloured markers, pencils, watercolour or digital techniques.
When We Went Wild, Ivy Kids
When We Went Wild, an inspiring picture book about our landscapes and environment based on a rewilding project in West Sussex, gives an important note of optimism in the current debate around climate change for young children.
Here, author Isabella Tree tell us more about their rewilding project and the picture book created with illustrator Allira Tee.
1. Can you tell us what When We Went Wild is about, and the inspiration for it?
Isabella: When We Went Wild is inspired by our rewilding story at Knepp in West Sussex, where we have turned our conventional, loss-making arable and dairy farm over to nature.
We began the project as an experiment in 2000, incrementally taking all 3,500 acres of the farm into the project by 2009. The results have been absolutely astonishing, with wildlife pouring back into new habitats created by free-roaming animals - cattle, ponies, pigs and deer - acting as proxies for some of the animals that would have roamed our landscape thousands of years ago.
We now have some of the rarest species in the UK, including turtle doves and nightingales, breeding at Knepp.
When We Went Wild, Ivy Kids
2. How close is the picture book to your real life experiences?
Isabella: It's only loosely based on our experiences at Knepp because, obviously, I had to simplify the story and I also wanted to reflect some of the other rewilding projects that are now kicking off around the UK.
Some of these are on small-holdings in upland areas where rewilding has had important mitigation effects on flooding. Not ploughing, and allowing scrub and trees to bounce back on the land, can significantly reduce the risk of flooding in water catchment areas, so this seemed an obvious way of providing resolution to the jeopardy in the plot - the objections of the neighbours evaporating in the face of the direct benefit they had derived from the rewilded farm protecting them from flooding.
3. Why did you decide to write about your rewilding experiences for children, and to do so in a picture book?
Isabella: We've had so much incredible feedback from people visiting Knepp and from reading my book Wilding, and a lot of people have asked whether I was considering writing for children. I loved picture books as a child. What child doesn't? I think children are so observant and pick up on details in pictures that adults often miss. I hope they enjoy the fleeting visits of the lynx in the pages!
4. Was it difficult to encapsulate the changes you saw in the landscape in so few pages?
Isabella: Strangely, no. It's obviously very simplified, but our experience has been so vivid and dramatic, it really lends itself to story-telling. The pictures, naturally, can pick up a lot of the detail that I didn't have room for in words.
5. What was the most memorable change that you reflect on in the picture book?
Isabella: I think it's this idea of allowing the landscape to get messy, for thorny scrub to rebound, for animals to wallow in pools, to go where they want, to live outside all year round, eating what they want, as nature intended.
I think this is a notion that children often find very natural. They're not worried by mess and randomness, by the lack of edges and straight lines in a landscape. They gravitate towards thickets and bushes, places to hide and make dens. It's the parents who might find this looser, freer landscape more challenging!
So in some ways, this is a book which children can use to educate their parents.
6. In the story, the moment of revelation - that you had done the right thing - came when the rewilding helps prevent local flooding. Was there one moment in your farming life that told you that you had made the right decision in rewilding?
Isabella: I think we knew from a very early stage that we'd done the right thing - probably from the first summer after we seeded our first tranche of land around the house with wildflowers and native grasses. Suddenly we were surrounded by life. Grasshoppers, bees, dragonflies - the sound of insects was overwhelming. Something we hadn't even known we'd been missing as farmers. So we knew we were on a journey of revival and that had the most wonderful, profound, psychological effect on us - again, something we hadn't been expecting.
But it took longer for others to realise that something exciting was happening here. I think when news that turtle doves and nightingales were breeding at Knepp, about five years into the project, that's when we began to make national headlines. And I think most of our neighbours' views of the project have now changed for the better but that has been a gradual process.
7. What did you think about Allira Tree's illustrations when you first saw them?
Isabella: I absolutely love Allira's illustrations! She captures expressions so well. I particularly like the 'before' spread of the muddy farmyard filled with drums of chemicals. The cows look so sad and dejected, and the pigs look bemused. Even the dog looks downbeat. And Jake has that worried, brow-beaten look that my husband used to have in our farming days when it was all going wrong. But of course, I love this picture the most because I know how the story ends!
8. Why did you decide to include the letter to readers at the end?
Isabella: My editor Georgia Amson-Bradshaw and I felt there were a lot of questions that the story throws up - such as, how does rewilding actually stop flooding?, and don't we need farms to grow our food? - that could be answered quite neatly in an end note. So, this is something that might answer the questions of inquisitive children, or that parents or adult readers of the book might want to know.
9. What would you like children to take from the book, and are there any activities or actions you'd like to suggest to them?
Isabella: I would love children to come away from this book with hope in their hearts - to know that nature really can bounce back, if we just let it. I think younger generations are impossibly burdened by the gloom and doom of the headlines about climate change and the environmental crisis and it's easy to feel dispirited - even paralysed - by the enormity of the situation.
I hope this story will assuage some of that eco-anxiety and inspire children to make a difference, too. Just giving up chemicals - like Jake and Nancy do in the book - in the garden and the house is hugely important. We've got to learn to love insects and small creatures again - from the worms in the soil and the spiders in the corners of our rooms. They are all important species and we can't have other wildlife without them.
We've got to allow ourselves to get messy! To leave bramble patches in our gardens, stop hoovering up the leaves and mowing the lawn so much, to allow native wildflowers (which we must stop calling 'weeds'!) to grow in our flower beds and roadside verges. Every spare patch of land could have wildlife if we let it.
10. How optimistic are you for the future of rewilding in the UK?
Isabella: Tremendously optimistic. I think people are now looking at the landscape in a very different way, beginning to realise what we're missing. And the politicians and policy-makers are too. These are exciting times.
11. Are you planning to write more for children?
Isabella: Yes, I'd love to write more for children. Hopefully, the next book will be on the return of white storks to the UK - we had the first storks nesting here at Knepp last year, the first for 600 years in Britain. It's a lovely story. But perhaps, a book on beavers (we're introducing them at Knepp), and, who knows, what about bison, and dung beetles (amazing creatures, keystone species)....it's such fun to be telling positive stories.
12. What are your favourite escapes when you're not working / writing?
Isabella: I love swimming in the lake here at Knepp. I spent a lot of time swimming around with the swans and geese and frogs in that wonderful hot spring and summer we had last year. I'm hoping this year will be the same.
13. Allira, How did you become an illustrator?
Allira: I have been creative for as long as I can remember but even though I could draw as a child, it didn't come as naturally to me as it did to my brother and sister. As a consequence, the thought of being an illustrator never really crossed my mind.
I actually studied graphic design at university and worked in the industry for over 10 years, but I started feeling unfulfilled with my work and really didn't know what else to do. While I was living in London, I decided to start drawing with the encouragement from a few friends. Before I knew it, I was hooked! And I haven't stopped since!
14. What drew you to the text, When We Went Wild, and why did you want to illustrate it?
Allira: I found the text incredibly inspiring. I think a lot of us are feeling the weight of climate anxiety and a sense of helplessness. After reading this book I felt a lot better and realised there are things we can all do that will make a difference, even if it's just small changes. I was drawn to the text and it gave me hope after I'd read it, so I thought, if I'm relating to it this way, I'm sure others will. I wanted to be part of that!
15. How did you decide on the style to use for the picture book?
Allira: I thought it was important to have a lot of detail in this book, in both the drawing style and the illustrations. I chose a colour palette that was both bright and uplifting, but also a few colours that could be used in the less happy pages of the book. As a child, I remember I loved to look at books where you could find little creatures and animals hidden within the pictures and I've popped a few in there too.
16. Did you need to do much research into the wildlife and landscape before you could illustrate them?
Allira: Yes, I needed to do lots of research and make use of many reference pictures as well in order to understand a landscape that wasn't completely familiar to me. I wanted to do the setting justice after reading Isabella's book 'Wilding', which completely blew me away.
17. How did you create the illustrations?
Allira: I did the initial sketches by hand and created the finals digitally.
18. Do you have a favourite spread?
Allira: I think my favourite spread is the last spread, where they all go wild. It's unlike anything I've ever done before. It really challenged me and I loved drawing and hiding all the animals.
19. What are your favourite things to illustrate?
Allira: I think animals and flowers will always be my favourite things to draw. Animals are wonderful and I love giving them their own personalities!
20. Where do you prefer to work?
Allira: I prefer to work in my study at home, with podcasts on all day! Currently I'm working on a new picture book idea, while doing a couple of commercial illustrations.